Long, bumpy road between development and votes

Prakash Jha’s van sends mixed messages.(Vinay Sitapati) Prakash Jha’s van sends mixed messages. (Vinay Sitapati)

In this concluding part of the development vote series, The Indian Express visits West Champaran to find out why a rural roads revolution does not seem to be working for the Nitish Kumar government this election.

The springs on filmmaker Prakash Jha’s palace-on-wheels remain intact, despite travelling through one of Bihar’s most backward districts.

Smooth rural roads, more Bandra than Bihar, secure his Bollywood vanity van. This combination of shiny roads and glitzy moviedom should have made the JD(U)’s candidate for West Champaran a shoo-in. But the slogans on that same van tell a different story. On one side is etched in Hindi “All religions. all castes. progress for all”. The other side announces “Corruption-free development”. These aren’t the best of messages, a party worker complains. “[The first slogan] sounds like the Congress, [the second] like Narendra Modi. How are we different?”
As six constituencies in Bihar vote on Monday, Prakash Jha is fighting the BJP’s incumbent MP Sanjay Jaiswal and the Congress-supported RJD’s Raghunath Jha in West Champaran. For the last several days, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar himself has been camping here, campaigning for Prakash Jha. For at stake is his development model, buffeted by Lalu Prasad on one side and Narendra Modi on the other.

West Champaran is an ideal place to test that model. In the last five years, the district has seen 1,216 km of rural roads added, the fourth highest increase among the 82 districts that receive special assistance from the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna, the Centre’s Rs 21,700 crore-a-year scheme.

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This special assistance is reserved for rural roads in Naxal-affected districts. MP Jaiswal explains how his constituency made it to that list. “There has been no Naxal violence here for the last 30 years,” he claims with a schoolboy’s glee. “But I used clout in Delhi to get the district marked Naxal-affected. So more funds for roads are pouring in.” Jaiswal denies that the Nitish government has played any role in the roads revolution. “There is no state money here. These funds are central money. Development is about funds… funds… funds. What else is there?”

There is the actual road construction. B Rajender is the official in charge of building rural roads in Bihar. “We scientifically chose which roads to build without any outside interference, and have constantly monitored the contractors,” he says. “I have been at this post for more than three years without being transferred. Because of job stability we are able to build.” A senior bureaucrat in West Champaran adds:

“There has been a strong emphasis on roads in this [state] government. A new department has been carved out to deal with just roads.”

That new department is housed in a building that is under feverish construction. Glass cubicles are being built on glazed white floors. An engineer working through the din says: “The work culture has changed… a few days ago, I sent an SMS to the DM [disrict magistrate] regarding a contract at 10 pm. I got an immediate reply.”

What no bureaucrat will openly say, for fear of violating the code of conduct, is the politics behind these changes. A local JD(U) leader has no such compunctions: “There was money during Lalu’s times. He just returned it. But our CM has made good roads the priority of his rule.” Every single voter in West Champaran this reporter spoke to knew of the roads revolution, and credited the state government with it. Even Mantu Tiwari, a BJP supporter, grudgingly admits: “City roads were always fine, but yes. he [Nitish] has changed rural roads here.”

Travelling through the district on a burning afternoon, one sees girls in school dress running by freshly tarred roads, a sight unimaginable a decade ago. Given this visible change, Nitish should have been winning easily. Instead, his candidate here is struggling, and opinion polls suggest his party might even place a lowly fourth in the state. The reasons why reveal the contingencies of the vikas vote here.

‘Asrani of politics’

“Nitish Kumar is the Asrani of Indian politics,” the BJP’s Sanjay Jaiswal says, comparing him to a Bollywood comedian. “He thought he would get every vote. But Hindus went with BJP, Muslims with Lalu. Who is left for Nitish?” Jaiswal is referring to Nitish’s decision of June 2013, when he broke his party’s 17-year alliance with the BJP after it became clear that Narendra Modi was the latter’s prime ministerial candidate. He didn’t foresee two consequences. A resurrected Lalu Prasad would still lay claim to the state’s 16.5 per cent Muslim vote. And the rise of Modi would scuttle his Hindu as well as vikas constituency.

Modi’s development image, in particular, hurts Brand Nitish. “Name one road which says ‘Chief Minister’s Road’,” Jaiswal says. “It’s all central and MP funds. Nitish has done nothing. Modiji is the one who can develop India.” Jaiswal’s father, a three-time MP, built the BJP network here. His son’s nerve centre, a hospital his doctor wife runs, burnishes this development image. In a black-stone corridor inside, as the sick wait in line, BJP workers wearing “Modi for PM” caps plot, plan and roam.

The other, improbable claimant to Nitish’s development image is Lalu’s candidate Raghunath Jha. A former union minister, he was the MP here between 2004 and 2009. He says that “all the roads here are from the PMGSY. It’s a central scheme we did [along with the Congress] when we were part of the UPA”. Clad in a brown silk kurta and blue lungi, the 75-year-old Jha has the confidence of a man given a second life. While his party was thought dead until recently, the Nitish-BJP split gives him a fighting chance. “Muslims are crucial,” an RJD worker says. Jha though is careful to avoid mentioning religion or caste in public. “We are the vikas party. Nitish has not built even one needle.”

Dressed in a Chinese-collared white shirt and wearing blue Nike shoes, Nitish’s candidate Prakash Jha has branding problems of his own. The film director “has stood three times, on three different symbols”, a BJP worker complains. Jha turns the accusation around. “Even after I lost, I came back and improved hospitals and bridges.. Candidates ask for votes on the basis of others. I am asking for votes for myself.” Jha notes changes in his constituency since he first stood in 2004. “The roads are better. but people are expecting more.” What he doesn’t mention is what his team says openly. He needs to edge out the RJD’s Raghunath Jha for the Muslim vote. It is that vote-bank, not Nitish’s shining roads, that can pave his journey to Parliament.

Tipu, a taxi driver in Champaran, has been feeling its roads for two decades. “During Lalu’s times, I would fear my [car] suspension would be ruined by the mud roads,” he says. “I was worried I would be stopped and robbed…” Bittu’s greatest joy now is speed driving, “sometimes… even 70 [km per hour]”. This is because of Nitish, he adds. “He ended Lalu raj”. But Tipu, along with others from his Rajput caste, will not express his gratitude through his vote. “Modi will change India,” he says simply.

Abhay Mohan Jha, a local journalist, explains why Nitish has lost the most in his divorce with the BJP. “Nitish was the face of the alliance.

He focused on governance, but… did not build his party foot soldiers. On the ground, it was the BJP cadre that benefited from power. They now have strong networks.”

In Motihari, an hour’s bump-free drive from the headquarters of West Champaran, a derelict brick house has become a place of literary pilgrimage. It lies surrounded by garbage and grunting pigs. Leaning on the back wall, young men talk politics. They are from the Pasi [Dalit] sub-caste, and credit their chief minister with a paved road recently laid by the house. But “this is a national election”, 19-year-old Arjun Kumar explains, then yells: “Ab ki bar, Modi sarkar”. Kumar also knows why the brick house is famous. “Jaarj Arwel was born here. he was messiah of the poor.”

Jaarj Arwel, or George Orwell, was the son of an opium agent posted here in 1903. The author of Animal Farm and 1984 wrote movingly on the politics of poverty. Succumbing to demagoguery from without and confusion from within, the poor misunderstood their own political interests. As Nitish, the sutures of his vikas vote-bank undone by religion and caste, searches for answers come May 16, he might find solace in Champaran’s most famous son.